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UAS housing needs voiced

Further funding will be sought next after Parnell veto, supporters say

Posted: September 22, 2011 - 11:05pm

The University of Alaska’s Board of Regents was the subject of a full-court press Thursday by University of Alaska Southeast supporters hoping to see improved student housing at the Juneau campus.

The school wants to expand Banfield Hall, its freshman dorm, to keep up with the influx of new students.

Community leaders turned out to keep the heat on in the push for the $8 million project.

Without the expansion, said UAS Campus Council chairman John Williams, the school can’t meet demand for housing for those who want to attend school, and may drive away students.

“This is the UAS chokepoint,” said Williams, who is also a real estate broker.

For the last two years, Banfield’s 84 beds for freshmen have been exceeded, pushing others out of student apartments and possibly keeping them from attending.

Williams said Juneau’s tightest-in-the-state rental housing market has no ability to help out.

“Expecting the civilian housing market to provide an alternative solution is just not viable,” he said.

Gov. Sean Parnell this year cut the legislative appropriation of $4 million in half when trimming budgets with his veto pen following the end of the legislative session.

UAS expects to get $2 million in an upcoming university bond package, which will give it a total of $4 million.

That will allow design and some work to be done, but additional appropriations will be needed to add the additional 60 beds UAS is seeking.

Juneau Chamber of Commerce CEO Cathie Roemmich said Juneau supports the university, and fears that a lack of housing will counteract efforts made by the University of Alaska’s scholars program and the new performance scholarships supported by the governor and Legislature.

She agreed with Williams the local market couldn’t absorb additional students.

“Juneau has an affordable housing problem,” she said.

That may make it impossible for students from outside Juneau to come here, and will cap growth at UAS.

“If any group has a need for affordable housing, college students certainly fit that stereotype,” she said.

All three members of the Juneau legislative delegation support the Banfield project, with Sen. Dennis Egan’s staffer Jesse Kiehl, Rep. Beth Kerttula’s Hannah McCarty and Rep. Cathy Muñoz’ Chris Clark all testifying in favor as well.

Regent Bob Martin of Juneau said that Parnell’s veto earlier this year “stopped the project,” and said he didn’t know why it had been done.

“We, too, never really heard an explanation,” Clark said.

Kiehl said he suspected it was budgetary pressure, not opposition, because he left half the money. That enables the project to keep going, but be completed later than had been hoped.

“I think it is telling that he let half the appropriation stand,” Kiehl said.

“It shows a commitment to move forward, perhaps more slowly than the university and the Legislature had hoped,” he said.

Kiehl works for Egan, who is a member of the Senate Finance Committee and who had originally sought the funding.

UAS Chancellor John Pugh said after the meeting that while the housing is important and is what they need legislative assistance with, it’s not the only part of the project.

Immediate work is being done on the project’s first phase, which is the new dining area.

Student food service is now done some distance away from the housing area, down a long trail to the campus center.

During Wednesday’s storm, he said he doubted many made the walk for food service.

“They do have a store up there where they can get stuff for their microwaves, and all the room have microwaves,” he said.

While students aren’t necessarily going hungry, Pugh said he didn’t want them to miss the dining hall study opportunities, either.

Housing, too, is part of the school’s academic mission, because a freshman dorm is about more than just housing, Pugh said.

“We know from research that freshman students need more support, particularly in the first semester, but generally in the first year, in having that learning community,” he said.

Juneau’s Max Mertz said his accounting firm frequently hired interns and full-time employees from UAS, and said it was important for the community to have it grow and remain strong.

“It does seem clear that the growth at UAS will depend on the housing here at UAS,” he said.

University of Alaska President Pat Gamble assured the Juneau residents that the student housing was a “priority project.”

The remaining amount of funding needed is small compared to projects in the tens of millions or more than $100 million elsewhere. Some of those smaller projects are easier to win approval for, he said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at patrick.forgey@juenauempire.com.

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